Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Dragon Murder Case (1934)

The Dragon Murder Case was the sixth of the fifteen Hollywood movies featuring amateur detective Philo Vance. The movies were made between 1929 and 1947. The Dragon Murder Case is the only one of the series to feature Warren William as Philo Vance. It was released by First National Pictures in 1934.

A house party at the Stamm estate promises to be interesting. It amuses Rudolf Stamm (Robert Barrat) to invite guests who have good reason to dislike each other. While waiting for the guests to arrive Rudolf is getting thoroughly drunk. His sister Bernice (Margaret Lindsay) is used to this. Her financé Monty Montague will be at the party - in fact he arrives with Ruby Steele (Dorothy Tree) and it’s obvious these two have a history. Also at the party is Dale Leland (Lyle Talbot). He’s been in love with Bernice for years. Rudolf Stamm is an interesting character - a doctor of science, an explorer, an expert on (and collector of) tropical fish.

The most notable feature of the Stamm estate is the Dragon Pool. This is not an ordinary swimming pool. It’s a stream that has been dammed, it’s quite deep and rather large. And at night it’s only partly illuminated. There’s a “dark end” to it. Access to the pool can be obtained at a number of different places. All of this is important as the Dragon Pool will be the scene of a tragedy at this party. One of the guests dives in, and doesn’t come up again. An unfortunate accidents perhaps but one of the other guests immediately telephones the police and asks for the Homicide Squad.

Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette) is worried. There’s no body, no actual evidence of murder, but plenty of odd behviour by the guests. And the man who vanished into the pool was an expert swimmer. It’s enough reason to contact District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) who duly arrives, accompanied by his old friend Philo Vance (an amateur detective who often assists Markham in a semi-official capacity).

There’s only one thing that can be done. The Dragon Pool will have to be drained.

But there’s still no body to be found. Maybe the local Indian legends about thew water-monster that lives in the pool were right after all. Or the Stamm family legends about the dragon, which Stamm’s mother (who is quite mad) insists is responsible for the tragedy.

The solution to the mystery might be both a little obvious and a little far-fetched but the alibi stuff is clever.

What makes this movie work is the suggestion of something weird and inexplicable and the Dragon Pool itself is pretty cool.

Warren William, who was often inclined to overact outrageously, gives a restrained performance. He’s nowhere near as good in the rôle as William Powell. He really should have made his performance a bit more flamboyant. He’s OK, but he’s just not Philo Vance. It’s most distressin’.

The supporting cast is solid (I’ve always thought highly of Lyle Talbot). Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath provides the comic relief which fortunately is kept to a minimum.

The movie is nicely paced. Director H. Bruce Humberstone helmed several of the Charlie Chan movies as well as the underrated film noir I Wake Up Screaming.

This is one of six movies included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. The transfer is quite good.

I reviewed S.S. Van Dine’s source novel The Dragon Murder Case a while back. Here’s the link.

The Dragon Murder Case is a good solid mystery with a few nice touches. Had Warren William put a bit more effort into capturing the flavour of the hero it could have been a very good movie. It’s still recommended.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

Adventures of Don Juan (AKA The New Adventures of Don Juan) was not, as is sometimes stated, Errol Flynn’s last swashbuckler. Four years later he would make the pirate swashbuckler Against All Flags. Adventures of Don Juan is however certainly a later Flynn swashbuckler, made at a time when he no longer had quite the same level of energy and zest that he had displayed in the 1930s.

Don Juan de Maraña (Flynn) is a Spanish nobleman living in England. He devotes his life to the pursuit of pleasure and to Don Juan that means the pursuit of women. He enjoys extraordinary success in these endeavours. He also spends a good deal of time avoiding the vengeance of irate husbands. He is aided and abetted by his faithful servant Leporello (Alan Hale). Don Juan has the misfortunate to get himself mixed up in the projected marriage between a very important English lady and an equally important Spanish gentleman. He gets caught in the lady’s bedchamber, which leads to certain misunderstandings. He is sent home to Spain in disgrace.

Queen Margaret of Spain (Viveca Lindfors), is inclined to be merciful. She gives him a job as a fencing instructor. Don Juan, who desires no more than to be allowed to continue his pursuit of pleasure, finds himself unwittingly caught up in intrigues at the Spanish court. The King, Philip III, is a well-meaning mediocrity caught in the middle of a power struggle between his minister the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) and the Queen. The Duke wants war with England. Queen Margaret wants peace.

Don Juan takes an immediate dislike to the Duke. On the other hand he takes an immediate liking to the Queen. The attraction is mutual.

Don Juan tries to reform. He tries really hard. It’s just that somehow he keeps ending up in situations that husbands misinterpret. With an enemy at court as powerful as the Duke de Lorca he inevitably finds himself in trouble. In fact he finds himself imprisoned and awaiting execution.

He’s not the only one in trouble. The Duke de Lorca is aiming to make himself the real power in Spain, with the King as a mere figurehead. And Don Juan’s old friend and protector, the Count de Polan, is also in trouble with de Lorca. Don Juan has to get himself and the Count out of trouble but he has an even greater task - he must find a way to save the Queen from the machinations of de Lorca.

It’s a recipe that offers plenty of opportunities for both romance and action. And also for humour. This is a rather witty swashbuckler with a certain tongue-in-cheek flavour.

Perhaps Flynn doesn’t quite have the manic energy he once had but he still has charisma to burn, he still has charm and he was always a much better actor than he was ever given credit for. Here he gives an amused slightly cynical performance with a definite twinkle in his eye. Don Juan is a rogue but in his own perverse way he has a very strong sense of honour. He has the pride of a Spanish nobleman. He dislikes violence which can lead his enemies to underestimate him. He will allow himself to be pushed only so far. He’s also a man who has no illusions about himself. He does not see himself as a hero - it is a rôle forced upon him by fate. Flynn captures the subtleties of the character extremely well. It’s a very fine performance.

Robert Douglas plays de Lorca as a thorough-going villain, cruel and arrogant. He’s a worthy villain for our hero. Viveca Lindfors is fine as the Queen, imperious but human. Alan Hale is of course fun as he was in his many appearances with Flynn. Look out for Raymond Burr in a small part.

Warner Brothers spent plenty of money on this movie (and it did well at the box office). The sets are sumptuous, the costumes are gorgeous. It’s in Technicolor and generally it’s pretty visually impressive. The climactic fight on the staircase is a highlight.

The difficulty with the romance angle is that Don Juan has finally found a woman for whom he would gladly give up his wicked ways but she is a queen. She will have to choose between love and duty, as will Don Juan. It’s a difficulty but it does make this an interesting swashbuckler.

It’s a pity Warner Brothers couldn’t get Michael Curtiz (who helmed Flynn's earlier swashbucklers) as director. Vincent Sherman does a very competent job but he’s not Michael Curtiz.

Adventures of Don Juan has had a number of DVD releases. I caught this film on TCM so I can’t comment on the quality of the DVDs.

Adventures of Don Juan has perhaps more of a bitter-sweet tone (even with just a hint of melancholy at times) but in its own way it’s a fine example of the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, with plenty of action, fun and wit and with a masterly performance by Flynn. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Unsuspected (1947)

The Unsuspected was directed by Michael Curtiz and released by Warner Brothers in 1947.

Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) does a hugely successful radio show on the subject of murder. It’s true crime stuff, suitably sensationalised, and it’s made him very rich. But tragedy has been stalking him. First his much-loved ward, Matilda, died. She was lost at sea. Then his secretary hanged herself. In fact the audience knows that her death was no suicide. Then a young man turns up on his doorstep, claiming to be Matilda’s husband (or at least his widower). His story sounds far-fetched and there’s a suspicion that he may be after her very large inheritance but his story seems to check out and it appears that he’s actually very wealthy himself so he’s unlikely to be a fortune-hunter.

Then the plot twists start to kick in, and they keep coming. Maybe nothing is as it appeared to be, and maybe the truth is very strange and mysterious indeed.

Grandison’s niece Althea (Audrey Totter) seems to have landed herself in a pretty comfortable position, living off her uncle. Her husband Oliver is a useless drunk but having a husband doesn’t cramp Althea’s style. She likes money and she likes men and she’s been successful in obtaining both. Maybe she obtained her husband at Matilda’s expense. Oliver (Hurd Hatfield) is slowly and methodically drinking himself to death and eventually we’ll understand why. Adding to the fun is Constance Bennett as Grandison’s feisty slightly man-crazy producer.

There’s another husband as well but his wife can’t remember having married him. The explanation for that is one of the keys to the mystery.

The identity of the killer isn’t hard to guess and is revealed openly long before the end but this is more a suspense film than a mystery so that doesn’t matter.

There are some nice technological touches and the ending in the junkyard is very effective and very tense. Curtiz proves himself to be very good at handling the suspense moments. There are times when it really is hard to see how some of the characters can possibly escape from the killer’s clutches.

Curtiz was an interesting figure. Nobody would claim him as an auteur but he had the ability to make good movies in just about any genre you can name. He was a very fine craftsman. And this movie is a prime example of a well-crafted Hollywood movie of the period. Woody Bredell’s moody noirish cinematography and some really stylish acting from Rains and Audrey Totter both help.

There’s some lively and witty dialogue (with Audrey Totter and Constance Bennett delivering theirs with real zest). Claude Rains restrains his tendency to overact.

This is a somewhat overlooked movie and there are a couple of possible reasons for this. It doesn’t have leads with real star power. Claude Rains was a big name but he was a character actor and apart from Rains the biggest name in the cast is Audrey Totter. She’s now very highly regarded by noir aficionados but she was at best a second-tier star. Joan Caulfield and Michael North have key rôles but they just don’t have any charisma at all.

And noir fans may have passed this one by because Michael Curtiz doesn’t the noir credentials of a Robert Siodmak or a Jacques Tourneur.

But is The Unsuspected in fact film noir? Most people seem to accept it as such but I’m not convinced. Of course in 1947 no-one in Hollywood was consciously making film noir. The term was unknown. Michael Curtiz would probably have regarded the movie as a dark mystery/suspense melodrama with a few touches of the gothic. It looks and feels like what we now call film noir but thematically I don’t see it. It’s noirish but not noir. It is however a very good movie with Rains, Totter and Bennett in top form. I highly recommend it.

The Warner Archive DVD release is what you expect - no extras but a very good transfer.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

some posts from my other blogs

Some posts from my other blogs which you might find interesting.

On Vintage Pop Fictions:

Wade Miller's 1959 Kitten with a Whip, later made into a terrific movie with Ann-Margret as the ultimate bad girl.

Mickey Spillane’s 1951 The Big Kill a classic Mike Hammer novel with the usual sleaze and violence done in Spillane’s inimitable style.

Day Keene's 1954 Sleep With the Devil, a fine example of 50s noir fiction.

A.S. Fleischman's Shanghai Flame. Great pulpy spy adventure fun.

On Cult TV Lounge:

Public Eye (season 7, 1975), the greatest of all British private eye TV series.

Perry Mason season 2 (1958-59). A true television classic.

A Man Called Harry Brent (1965). A Francis Durbridge-penned British crime/mystery serial.

On Cult Movie Reviews:

Five Golden Dragons (1967). Lightweight but fun and outrageous thriller about an international crime syndicate. It has a very tenuous Edgar Wallace connection. And it features Christopher Lee.

Louisiana Hussey (1959). Low-budget but very enjoyable hicksploitation movie.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972). Excellent giallo which is a kind of precursor to Don’t Look Now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Captain Sindbad (1963)

Captain Sindbad is a light-hearted adventure flick released by MGM in 1963. There have been countless Sindbad (or Sinbad) movies and the best of them are the ones with the Ray Harryhausen special effects (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). Captain Sindbad is not as good but it’s still cheesy fun.

Before I go any further I should note that a lot of people seem to be very confused by the spelling of the hero’s name as Sindbad rather than Sinbad but in fact there’s no mystery - Sindbad is a perfectly acceptable English spelling of his name.

The king of Baristan is old and ailing and all real power is now in the hands of the tyrant-magician El Kerim. To cement his power he intends to marry the king’s beautiful daughter Jana. Princess Jana is appalled by the prospect. She is in love with the handsome dashing seafarer-adventurer Sindbad.

The kindly magician Galgo would like to help her but El Kerim has a hold over him. Galgo does what he can, such as turning Jana into a bird so she can fly off and find Sindbad.

El Kerim has plans to get rid of his rival. Sindbad’s ship is attacked by giant birds that drop huge rocks onto the deck, sinking the ship (a sequence that is executed extremely well). But it takes more than that to kill a mighty hero and we know that Sindbad will return to deal with El Kerim. He’ll have to be quick since the wedding of El Kerim and Jana is to take place soon, and of course he will have to face many dangers and many monstrous creatures along the way.

El Kerim has one huge advantage. He cannot be killed because his heart is not in his chest, it is safely locked up in a tower guarded by all manner of hideous monsters. Which is a pretty cool concept.

Guy Endore’s script provides plenty of scope for heroics. Director Byron Haskin was something of a specialist in this type of film and he knows what he’s doing. He certainly knows how to keep things moving which is of course the key to success when you don’t have a gigantic budget to work with.

The special effects were not done by Ray Harryhausen and they’re not up to his standards but they’re still fairly good. There are some imaginative monsters. There’s also a weird spider dance which I rather liked.

The movie was shot in Technicolor and has a bright comic-book look to it. The sets and the costumes are extravagant enough given that this was not a big-budget blockbuster.

The cast members understand precisely what is expected of them and they ham it up accordingly. Guy Williams (already well known for the Zorro television series and soon to be much better known for Lost in Space) makes a fine hero and being of Italian extraction he has the right kind of Mediterranean good looks for the rôle. Hedi Bruhl is charming and attractive as Jana.

Pedro Armendáriz steals the movie with his outrageous performance as El Kerim but he has some stiff competition from Abraham Sofaer as Galgo. The performances are all delightfully silly and they all work.

The Warner Archive DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer with dazzling colour. There are no extras.

Captain Sindbad is not one of the great adventure movies but it has charm and a sense of fun. It never makes the mistake of taking itself the least bit seriously. It’s cheesy, but in a good way. It’s a popcorn movie. If you can still get in touch with your inner ten-year-old you’ll enjoy it. I did. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

A Life at Stake (1955)

A Life at Stake is an oddity. It’s kind of a film noir, but it isn’t. The most curious thing about it is the casting of Angela Lansbury as the femme fatale. Yes, Angela Lansbury.

Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is an architect-builder whose business has gone down the tubes after his partner gambled away all the firm’s money, leaving Shaw extremely bitter. Now he has received an offer that will allow him to get his business back on its feet again. It’s an offer he can’t refuse, but maybe he should have refused it anyway.

The offer, of half a million bucks, comes from a Mrs Hillman although actually it’s her husband putting up the money. Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury) is a bored housewife and 

Shaw suspects that she may be more interested in playing around on the side with him than in the business venture. He could be right.

He has soon has cause to be suspicious about other things as well. Like the fact that the Hillmans want him to take out a huge insurance policy on his life. That makes Shaw suspicious that they might be planning to bump him off. Which sounds silly but it’s already been established that Shaw is a guy who is suspicious of everybody.

There are a number of things that tend to conform Shaw’s suspicions, including things that Doris’s kid sister Madge tell him. The cops don’t believe him when he tells them that the Hillmans are planning to murder him but his paranoia keeps on growing. He’s in love with Doris, but he’s also in love with Madge. It makes it hard for him to think straight. The brake failure that nearly kills him makes him more paranoid but then he’s also rather accident-prone. He’s so jumpy and distracted that he walks out in front of cars. So maybe it is just paranoia.

He and Madge cook up a scheme to find out the truth but it’s a pretty reckless plan wth lots of potential to backfire.

This is not quite a film noir but it does have some noirish elements. It has an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion and it does have a femme fatale. I’d describe it more as a Hitchcock-style suspense thriller than a noir. Or maybe a noir-tinged Hitchcock-style suspense thriller.

Now if I were making this kind of movie and I wanted a femme fatale I’m not sure that Angela Lansbury would have been my first choice but if you can just forget that this is Angela Lansbury her performance is not that bad. And she does manage to be convincingly sexy (if you can just forget that this is Angela Lansbury).

The performance of Keith Andes is more problematic. It’s a weird low-key performance and everybody else hates it but in a strange way I liked it - Shaw is a strange kind of guy who just can’t bring himself to trust anyone or to relax and I think Andes gets this across.

Hank McCune produced the movie from his own story idea (with Russ Bender writing the screenplay) and while there are no great surprises it’s quite a decent paranoia/suspense story. Director Paul Guilfoyle mostly worked in television. This movie probably needed a director with a bit more style and energy to bring out the suspense elements more effectively.

There is some amusing hardboiled dialogue.

Umbrella have released this one on DVD in Region 4. It’s not a spectacular transfer but it’s acceptable.

A Life at Stake is not a complete success but it’s interesting to see Angela Lansbury cast against type and managing to be an OK femme fatale. It’s a B-movie oddity that is enjoyable enough if you’re in the mood. It certainly does the paranoia thing very effectively. Don’t set your expectations too high but it’s worth a rental.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the sixth of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson (and the fourth to be made by Universal). It was released in 1943 and is based (loosely) on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

The Rathbone/Bruce series began with 20th Century-Fox in 1939. For complicated reasons only two movies were made. In the early 40s Universal acquired the rights and very wisely decided to stick with the winning combination of Rathbone and Bruce. They also made the very unfortunate decision to try to update Sherlock Holmes by pitting him against the Nazis in a contemporary setting. After three such efforts sanity finally prevailed and the next film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, was a classic Holmesian adventure. While it still had a contemporary setting the story could just as easily have taken place in the 1890s as the 1940s. The war is relegated very much to the background and plays no part in the story. In fact this film (and the remainder of the Universal Sherlock Holmes cycle) really takes place in a self-contained fog-shrouded universe in which Holmes has always had rooms at 221b Baker Street and always will have.

This film also represents a very sharp, and very welcome, turn towards a gothic feel. This is of course something that Universal could do very very well. They even re-use sets built for Dracula.

Dr Watson is staying at Musgrave Manor, a gloomy 16th century pile in Northumberland. The house is being used as a temporary hospital for convalescent officers, with Dr Watson in charge of their care. Alarmed by the attempted murder of his assistant, Dr Bob Sexton, Watson asks his old friend Sherlock Holmes for help. Given that Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) has been assigned to the case it’s just as well that Holmes will be on hand. Lestrade, as usual, is bungling the case hopelessly. He arrests an American officer, based on some very flimsy circumstantial evidence.

The murders begin immediately after the arrival of Holmes. Holmes suspects they have some connexion with the enigmatic Musgrave Ritual, performed for over 400 years on the occasion of the death of the current head of the family.

No-one in the family knows the meaning of the Musgrave Ritual. Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke) has to recite the ritual without having the slightest idea what it means. In fact the members of the famiy assume it has no meaning. Holmes does not accept this.

The murders and the ritual give Holmes puzzles to solve. He gets to do some real detective work and Bertram Millhauser provides a script that puts those puzzles at centre stage.

The chess scene and the reading of the Ritual are impressive set-pieces.

The previous film in the series, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, had been a flop. The decision to change direction and make Sherlock Holmes Faces Death a classic whodunit proved to be an excellent one. It was a major success with the public, and critics generally liked it as well. Perhaps wartime audiences didn’t want endless movies about Nazi spies. It seems that they actually wanted pure entertainment to take their minds off the war. And they wanted the real Sherlock Holmes, using his genius to solve baffling crimes.

Reverting to a traditional detective story format also makes the central characters, and the performances of the two leads, work much more effectively. Hunting Nazi spies made Sherlock Holmes seem like a fish out of water but here he is in his element.

Roy William Neill directed all but one of the Rathbone-Bruce films and he really was the perfect choice. He was essentially a B-feature director but he had an excellent visual sense and that, combined with Charles Van Enger’s marvellous black-and-white cinematography, gives the Holmes film their distinctive slightly gothic feel.

Bertram Millhauser’s screenplay utilises various elements of the original short story but most importantly it feels like a Sherlock Holmes story.

This movie is not perfect. While the climatic showdown between Holmes and the murderer is excellent it’s the film’s only real suspense scene. In particular it was a mistake not to make the audience feel that Sally Musgrave was in real danger.

Whether Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (in the 1980s-1990s Granda TV series) was the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes is an unanswerable question. Both gave very different interpretations of the rôle but in both cases there was ample support in Conan Doyle’s stories for those interpretations. They simply emphasised different facets of the  personality of a complex character whose enduring popularity is based largely on the fact that he was so complex. Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson is more controversial but on the hole the decision to make him a semi-comic character was probably justified. The films were dark enough that some comic relief was actually welcome. And in this film Watson is amusing without being a fool.

Optimum Releasing’s Region 2 DVD offers a superb transfer and some nice extras an including an audio commentary by noted Sherlockian David Stuart Davies.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a vast improvement on the three earlier Universal films. With this production Universal had found the correct formula. It’s by no means the best entry in the cycle but it’s still highly recommended.